Cooper's in the tub
Strange encounter with swift predatory hawk
Wednesday, Aug 06, 2014 11:15 am
Medium-sized hawk with broad, rounded wings, and a very long, rounded tail. Steel grey up top, red bars on white underparts and thick, dark bars on tail. Youths will be brown up top with streaky brown chests.
Standing bolt upright in a tree in a forest before zipping down to grab a bird at your feeder.
Occasionally confused with:
Sharp-shinned hawk, which looks very similar apart from its shorter neck and pencil-thick legs.
Cooper’s hawks often run into objects in flight. A study of about 300 dead Cooper’s hawks found that about 23 per cent had healed-over broken bones, many of which were in the chest.
Ever interrupted a bird while it’s in the bath?
I did once. Except it wasn’t a bird-bath, and it wasn’t something like a chickadee or sparrow.
It was a puddle, and the bird was one of the quickest, deadliest raptors that fly the St. Albert skies – a Cooper’s hawk.
It happened early on Sept. 10, 2012. As I walked out to the car, I spotted a great big bird at the end of the driveway. It dipped its bottom into a very shallow puddle twice or thrice, noticed me, and, presumably scandalized, took flight, just skimming the roof of a nearby house before dropping out of sight.
That’s pretty atypical behaviour for a Cooper’s hawk, says Gordon Court, a wildlife status biologist and raptor specialist with Alberta Fish and Wildlife. You’re more likely to see these birds zipping through your yard to pick off songbirds or perched high in a tree, waiting to strike.
Also atypical was the behaviour of one female Cooper’s hawk that local bird-bander Rick Morse says he encountered while banding its chicks in a nest near Fort Saskatchewan last month.
Whereas most female Cooper’s hawks simply leave when confronted by a bird-bander at their nest, this particular one was quite aggressive, Morse says.
“It was trying to hit me in the face when I was up at the nest,” he explains. (He wears a helmet with a face shield for this reason.)
“She wouldn’t even make a sound. All of a sudden, she’s right in your face.”
Cooper’s hawks are medium-sized hawks with broad, rounded wings, big heads, broad shoulders, and a very long, round, barred tail, reports the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. They typically have grey backs and white chests covered with warm, reddish bars. Juvenile birds will have brown backs.
They tend to have a very light nape and a very dark brown or copper top to their head, Morse notes.
“It’s almost like they’re wearing a hat.”
It’s very tough to tell a Cooper’s hawk apart from a sharp-shinned hawk at first glance, Court notes.
“You need a pretty good look at them.”
One tip is to look at the wrist of the wing (the point where it bends), Court says. With the sharp-shinned, these wrists line up with the tip of the beak while in flight. With the Cooper’s, the beak extends beyond the wrists, making it look like it has a longer neck.
Sharp-shinned hawks also stick to dense, deep forests like black spruce bogs to hide from predators like the Cooper’s, Court notes. You’re far more likely to encounter a Cooper’s in city limits than a sharp-shinned.
Cooper’s hawks are accipiters, meaning they have short wings and long tails made for rapid manoeuvring. Instead of flying over forests like a merlin, these hawks will dive right into them, slipping through gaps in branches with lightning speed.
“Sometimes they’ll even pop to the ground and run for short periods,” Court says.
“They’re the original velociraptor; they’re just a few million years later!”
Blink and you miss them
You’re most likely to spot a Cooper’s hawk when it’s going after songbirds at your backyard feeder, Court says – provided you don’t blink, of course.
“They’re incredibly good at accelerating,” he notes, and can zip in and out before their victims even realize they’re there.
In flight, the Cooper’s hawk flies with a distinct “flap flap glide” pattern unlike the continuous wing beats of the merlin, says Court. They don’t soar around like a red tail hawk, preferring instead to sit bolt upright in a tree until they spot something and leave cover.
Once they do, these birds power-dive for several seconds to gain speed before pulling up to glide low to the ground, reports Hinterland Who’s Who. If spotted by their target, they’ll start pumping their wings for a turbo boost to get close enough to strike.
Unlike falcons, which kill with a bite from their sharp beaks, Cooper’s hawks prefer to squeeze their victims to death in their claws. Some observers have even seen the birds holding creatures underwater until they drown, the Cornell Lab notes.
Morse says Cooper’s hawks frequently hunt feeder birds in places like Grandin. Pigeons, squirrels and ring-necked pheasants can also end up on their menu.
Cooper’s hawks often have a specific “plucking post” where they bring their prey to pluck off any feathers before consumption, Morse notes. If you spot a tree or post with a lot of feathers around it, you can be sure that there’s a Cooper’s hawk nest nearby.
Morse says some people don’t like it when Cooper’s hawks start eating their feeder birds, but he says that’s just nature at work.
If you really don’t want Cooper’s hawks in your yard, the Cornell Lab recommends taking down your bird feeders for a few days if a hawk shows up. No feeder birds will soon mean no hawk.
Court says Cooper’s hawks have trouble spotting plate-glass windows while travelling at high speeds. Residents should keep their bird feeders away from their windows and use streamers or silhouettes to reduce potential collisions.
I still wonder why that hawk chose to use that puddle as a swimming pool. Maybe I should have offered him a towel?